Back to My Future – Colour of Money MattersBy Garry | December 4th, 2008 | Category: Back to My Future, Money & Finance | No Comments »
Once you begin travelling abroad, you quickly learn that the colour of your money does matter. As I described earlier this week, even in the highly internationalised environment of a foreign airport transit lounge, some currencies are accepted, others are not.
Whilst my experience in Chermenteyov, in 1999, regarding some shops accepting multiple currencies, and some accepting a select few, may or may not have been due to business operator’s preferences, or due to airport rules, or even Russian laws, it did show me that travelling abroad requires a degree of preparation for the unexpected. Luckily, I was carrying several currencies including British Pounds and US Dollars, otherwise I could have had a very thirsty and boring period in the transit lounge.
That said, I thought I was being smart in one area where I could have been more prudent. Whilst I had checked currency exchange rates and discovered the interbank rate was at 60.75 Thai Baht to the Pound Sterling. Teletext page 292 told me that Thomas Cook were selling Baht at 54.60 to the Pound Sterling. My own UK bank offered a rate somewhere in the middle of those, and amongst my travel money order I asked for a hundred Pounds worth of Thai Baht and the same in US Dollars – I’d considered it to be pocket change for the first 24 hours after arriving in Thailand … a developing country likely to have a poor banking infrastructure – right? Wrong.
Almost immediately after clearing Customs and Immigration at Don Muang airport (back then the only long-haul international airport for Thailand apart from Phuket) I was confronted by a row of currency exchange booths from each of the main Thai banks. Useful thought I, then I realised they were all offering better rates for converting Sterling into Thai Baht, than I had received back in the UK.
On average they were offering around 2.5 Baht better. that doesn’t sound a lot, but on one hundred Pounds, it was 250 Baht, or the price of a mid-range room for the night. A similar difference was offered for US Dollars. Checking the rate boards on all the booths, they were within 1% of each other, so I exchanged about 300 Pounds at the one giving the marginally better rate.
As I’d started my journey with the intention of staying in South East Asia for at least a year, and probably making a home out here, I was carrying a lot of money in various forms. Prudence should have told me to bank it as quickly as possible, but she’d decided to go and laze on the beach with Inertia. By the time I did get around to banking it after about a month in-country, the exchange rate had eased against me, and instead of getting just over 60 Baht to each of my Pounds, I only got about 55.50 – Ouch! On the amount I was carrying, that hurt to the tune of nearly three months total living expenses and spending money.
Opening a bank account in Thailand is relatively simple and painless. Choose your preferred bank and trot along with your money and passport, it helps to also have the business card of your guest house or hotel for address purposes. As a tourist, you can open a regular deposit account, and obtain a visa-backed debit card for use at ATMs and when shopping. You can’t use it for remote purchases or on the internet though – you need to sign up for Internet-banking and pay for a web-card (virtual number) before you can do that. Kasikorn Bank (formerly Thai Farmer’s Bank) are the most experienced and useful in that arena.
Trying to get a credit card in Thailand has to be one of the most jaw-dropping experiences I’ve ever come across. All banks want you to not only deposit into a locked bonded account the amount of the credit limit, they also want you to have a Thai national employed in a government post as guarantor for the card’s withdrawals. Fair enough if you’re a short term tourist I suppose, but they also want the same from business and home owning foreigners with decades in the kingdom. I should confess this is not a bank stipulation, it comes from government rules.
Trying to open a current account has similar irks to trying to get a credit card, and the charges would make even a London Docklands loan shark wince. Anyone who thinks UK banks charge through the nose for business accounts, would be apoplectic at the charges levied for a personal current account in Thailand – no wonder the kingdom is primarily a cash-only society.
If you’re using your foreign credit or debit card to make purchases in Thailand, don’t be surprised to be told that it’ll cost you an extra 2% to 5% on top of the agreed price. There are apparently no limitations here for being surcharged when paying by plastic – especially foreign plastic. It’ll really nark you the first few times, but eventually you get used to it, and just shrug when you’re told. The crazy thing is, especially for larger purchases, wherever you’re likely to use your bank card to buy, you probably walked past an ATM at the entrance and could save quite a bit by popping out to use it.
Black market currency exchanging is virtually unknown in Thailand. sure a few bars or restaurants might accept dollars or Pounds and give you a shaky rate for doing so, but generally it’s neither needed nor wanted to be handling multiple currencies. As one Thai once said to me, “If it hasn’t got a picture of the Thai King on it, it’s not real money.” And that pretty much sums up financial attitudes to digital and non-currency paper throughout most of the kingdom.
Tomorrow – Accommodation, pre-book or travel and hope?